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Understanding Potential Out-of-Air Operations for the Mayday

Understanding Potential Out-of-Air Operations for the Mayday


P.J. Norwood & Frank Ricci


Preparation, training, and understanding our equipment is the key to success. The fire servicer service has come a long way in preparing for failure.

  • Repetitive Mayday training that focuses on building muscle memory has proved invaluable.
  • We have even begun to reach across the divide and train our dispatchers in the proper response.
  • Rapid Intervention Teams (RIT) are now taken seriously in most departments and staffed with at least four firefighters.


So where are our blind spots when it comes to the Mayday and are we working to cover them? Preventing the Mayday is critical but not always possible. Our profession has many inherent risks. Survival could come down to understanding how our equipment is designed to function and using this knowledge to our benefit.


{Although most lessons can be applied to any manufacturer, for the purpose of this blog we will be addressing SCOTT Air Paks}


Dying to Take A Breath

It’s no secret to those of you who have read National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death (LODD) reports that many downed firefighters are recovered with their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask removed. Collectively we should be asking, “Why is that?” We believe there are several contributing factors.


From the data we can glean that panic plays a role, especially in cases where the SCBA tank still has air in it. More confidence training is necessary with varying levels of artificial stress. This model has been used effectively by our Armed Forces.



When things go bad, the firefighter’s muscle memory must naturally kick in. This training must include emergency breathing techniques, end-of-bottle training, stress-induced pass activation, and the Mayday call. We cannot just train for success when calling a Mayday--during a portion of the Mayday training we need to ensure that the firefighter will fail to be rescued or find a way out. This way the firefighter can be prepared to make the right decisions to increase his chances of a positive outcome.


Firefighters often fail to understand when they are about to completely deplete the bottle of air. We are not just talking about missing the bells and whistles. With Scott Air-Paks there is also an unintended safety measure that all firefighters should be aware of.   


Any firefighter who has worn an SCBA should have experienced the feeling of having the mask sucking to his face when running the SCBA down to zero. This is a scary moment for anyone, regardless of whether it occurs during training or hostile conditions.


Completely removing your SCBA mask under distress in an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) environment creates significant issues for you and the RIT Team. (Photo 1. RIT Removing downed member after replacing the firefighter’s mask. Photo from Firefighter Survival Techniques DVD



You will be exposed to high concentrations of toxic gases. We understand that this is an instinctive response, but your survival may be dictated by controlling this response.


We need to change this reaction through training. We need to be ready for this scenario and be prepared to take protective actions.

  • Calling for the Mayday as soon as you think you are jammed up.
  • Creating areas of refuge by closing doors to reduce flow path.
  • Having a full understanding of your equipment


All of these must become second nature.


The keys to survival are having an intimate knowledge of your SCBA, its capabilities, and limitations through training and being prepared to take protective actions.


We can only hope that by using proven methods that you will avoid finding yourself in a Mayday situation. Monitoring your air supply, knowing your limitations of your air, and adopting an air management program can go a long way. However, firefighting is a dangerous occupation and at times we may end up in a situation (caught, trapped, disoriented, injured, or experiencing a medical emergency) where we cannot remove ourselves and need to self-rescue or wait on RIT.


Prepare for the out-of-air emergency using simulations and training. You need to create muscle memory so that when your tank runs empty, you will remove your regulator only and not your mask. Keeping your mask on and removing your regulator will still expose you to the toxic environment, but when the RIT finds you they can immediately apply supplemental air to you by simply putting a regulator in place.


 (Photo 2. RIT team easily supplies the downed member with a positive air source from the RIT pack by clicking in the regulator. Photo from Tactical Perspective Mayday DVD) Film clip 1
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The alternative is that when you remove your mask the RIT team will have to replace your mask with another mask from the supplemental air supply (RIT Bag). This RIT evolution is a tactical nightmare, especially in deteriorating conditions.  Anyone who has trained in this task clearly knows this is not as easy as simply replacing someone’s regulator.


When the RIT team determines that they need to click in the new regulator or switch out regulators, there are several factors to consider. 1) What is the state of the firefighter’s breathing? 2) Does the RIT firefighter need to open the bypass value to ensure that the downed member is getting air if they are unconscious? Remember, an unconscious firefighter will not be able to activate the regulator. not activating the Bypass could be the equivalent of putting a plastic bag over the firefighter’s head and suffocating them. If the RIT team is switching out the regulator, take the time to remove the RIT hose and place it under your knee. This way you will know right where to find it in blackout conditions.


Training is the cornerstone to everything we do on the fireground.

As you approach an out-of-air emergency it is with utmost important that you have a high sense of situational awareness. You must know what’s going on with you and your equipment and what’s going on around you. 


The SCOTT Vibralert will alarm when you have 25 percent of your bottle’s capacity left for any NFPA 2007 Edition or earlier SCBA. The Vibralert works off the air pressure in your SCBA. When the pressure is reduced to approximately 1,200 psi (for a 4,500 psi bottle) it indicates you have only 25 percent of the overall capacity left. Note that this low-air alarm will move to 33 percent for NFPA 2013 Edition SCBA, which are expected to go into service later in the year. When your bottle reaches approximately 150 to 100 PSI, the Vibralert normally will stop alarming.


For an example, let’s look at an SCBA with a 30-minute bottle. When the Vibralert stops alarming, that tells you your mask is about to suck to your face. For most firefighters, this means that you have six to eight breaths left. This will vary based on physical exertion and your emotional fortitude. You must have solid situational awareness and realize your alarm stopped alerting; now is the time to stop your attempts at self-rescue and prepare to remove your regulator.


If you are using a 45-minute or 60-minute bottle, the number of breaths should be higher; however, the number of breaths will be dictated by the factors above and the individual. (Another note is the SCBA’s whistles or bells may also shut off with some air left, but the time left is typically less than with the Vibralert)


Upon noticing that your low-air alarm has stopped alarming, update your Mayday, ensure that you’re by a wall, activate your PASS device, and get as low as possible. Control your breathing and manage the last few clean breaths as best you can. Place you hand on the regulator, preparing to remove it. As soon as the mask sucks to your face, remove the regulator. Then use your hood and pull up to cover the open h*** in the mask. Now you need to find clean air.


The hood will not stop or even hinder CO, HCN, or a host of other serious actors, however it will prevent soot from traveling deeper in your respiratory tract, which could lead to significant medical complications if you are lucky enough to be rescued.


At this point, all bets are off and try anything you can. Still, by leaving the mask in place you will increase your chances if you are located by the RIT. This is especially true if you are unconscious. You may be able to find somewhat breathable air at the floor in a corner or where a wall meets the floor. Another option is use your tool to create a h*** in the floor or wall--there may be clean air on the other side. These actions probably will not be effective.


Remember, just because you transmitted a Mayday does not mean that you should sit and wait for help to come. If you disagree with us, take a look at the studies that were completed in Phoenix after the tragic fire that resulted in the LODD death of Brett Tarver. Being rescued by RIT has limitations, and the major limitation is time. You need to get out. If you have any change in your status or location, update the incident commander (IC) so the RIT can be informed.


You can successfully receive supplemental air so you can increase your chance at escape by:

  • taking protective actions
  • Using LUNAR or other departmental Mayday policy actions
  • Having trained dispatchers
  • Shutting doors
  • Communicating with the IC and
  • Working with RIT.


New Haven PASS Training

While conducting Mayday training in New Haven, Connecticut, we created artificial stress by dropping the firefighters on a mattress and or throwing a segment of chain link fence on the firefighter. When the firefighters went to activate their PASS, 75 percent of the time they would try to trigger it by hitting the reset button on the side. Like most firefighters, our personnel fell into a common trap: when something didn’t work they hit the button harder or just abandoned any attempt to active it.






(Photo 3. Mask confidence training photo, Tactical Perspectives Mayday DVD) Film Clip 2

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The findings of this stress training validated the need for muscle memory training. Our members became complacent when checking out their SCBA. When they would check out the SCBA, they would turn it on and go through their check out by turning on the SCBA. Then when they cleared the unit they would reset the PASS with the reset button. When stress was added, members fell back on their training and subconsciously went for the rest instead of the manual activation button on the front of the PASS. The lesson is clear: Always manually active your PASS when checking out your SCBA.


(Photo 4. Firefighter manually setting off PASS. Photo by Christine Ricci)


All skills and training are perishable. You can only learn so much from an article, blog, books, or watching our DVDs from The Tactical Perspective Series, “Mayday and Handling the Mayday for Dispatchers.” It is imperative to get out of the firehouse and train! Remember, we do not rise to meet expectations--we fall back to our level of training.


Special thanks to the Jeff Emery and the technical team at Scott Safety for their input on this blog.



P.J. Norwood is a Deputy Chief Training Officer for the East Haven CT Fire Department and has served four years with the CT Army National Guard. P.J. has authored Dispatch, Handling the Mayday Fire Engineering Books and Videos (2012), co-authored Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation and May Day DVD’s (2011, 2012) and he was a key contributor to the Tactical Perspectives DVD Series. P.J. is a FDIC Instructor, Fire Engineering contributor, Fire Engineering University faculty member, co-creator of Fire Engineering’s weekly video blogs “The Job” and hosts a Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio show. He currently serves on the UL Technical Panel for the Study of Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread Hazards on Fire Fighter Safety. He has also lectured across the United States as well and overseas. He is certified to the Instructor II, Officer III and Paramedic level.

Frank Ricci is a Contributing Editor and Advisory Board Member for Fire Engineering. He is the Drillmaster for the New Haven Fire Department and Co-host the radio show Politics & Tactics. Frank is a contributing author to the Firefighters Handbook I & II (PennWell 2008) for the Safety and Survival chapter, written with Anthony Avillo and John Woron. He was the Project Manager for Emergency Training Solutions for the Firefighters Handbook I & II Power Point presentations. He has been an FDIC hot instructor and currently is an FDIC lecturer. Frank has won a landmark case before the US Supreme Court. Frank has testified before Congress and has been a lead consultant for Yale on several studies. Frank has worked on a heavy rescue unit covering Bethesda and Chevy Chase MD and DC. He was a “student live in” at station 31 in Rockville MD.

He developed the Fire Engineering film Smoke Showing. Frank is a co-creator of Fire Engineering’s Tactical Building Blocks Poster Series and has several Training Minute Segments. Frank has authored several DVDs including Firefighter Survival Techniques and Fire Engineering’s Tactical Perspectives series, Command, Ventilation, Mayday and Fire Attack.









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Comment by Bobby Halton on November 23, 2013 at 1:36pm

Gents, another amazing post, great information and well presented! Should be a must review for inhouse training! 

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